The last 7 months on Ocean Star have been unprecedented…
In short, Ocean Star was moored in Road Town Tortola, BVI when hurricane Irma passed overhead. She sustained considerable damage but remained afloat amongst the wreckage and destruction of the BVI. Her crew went straight to work helping with the humanitarian relief efforts for several months in the aftermath. From there, Ocean Star went to Antigua Slipway for vital hull repair before being re-rigged in St Petersburg, Florida. Returning to the Caribbean in the beginning of February, we welcomed a cohort of 11 very excited university students.
It is with enormous pride that Ocean Star will be returning to race in Antigua classics week (18-24th April). We have had major setbacks and have been truly tested along the way, but where we stand now marks a huge achievement for our team. Getting to the point has relied on an unwavering belief held by all those involved that what this vessel and her program stand for is truly worthwhile. Thanks to Ocean Star, over the last 58 days, the students have studied for their college courses whilst sailing to 13 countries. For some, this is the first time away from home, for many their first sailing experience, and for others the first time being part of a strong, cohesive, young enthusiastic team. The average age of all persons aboard is 22.
Below is an account of the hurricanes and refit efforts from first mate Ian. M:
Never having experienced a hurricane before, a category five storm seemed like a bit of a jump on the ol’ learning curve. I would have preferred a breaking in period of a few Cat 2’s or 3’s just to get my feet wet, but when life throws lemons at you at 200mph, you duck.
On September 10th of 2017, the thought of sailing Ocean Star in the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta seemed impossible considering her condition. On the morning of the storm, the two staff members that had stayed behind for final adjustments awoke at 5 am in our hotel room overlooking the slip. We took one last look at Ocean Star to settle in our minds that we had done all we could before heading for higher ground. I worried about what lay in store, and reluctantly left her for our planned shelter all the way back in the West End of Tortola. I wanted to know that she would survive the storm unscathed and to live without doubting there was something else we could have done to save her. Thoughts of her condition ate at me for the next four days as we tried to make it back to the vessel. The day after the storm, the roads all across the island were completely blocked by downed trees, fallen power lines, beached vessels, and overturned cars. The last messages we received before all internet and phone services cut out had warned of Hurricane Jose threatening to strike at the islands as a second major storm. In the aftermath the following day, it took the four crew that had evacuated from the vessel a full day just to hike from our guest house into Soper’s Hole. A friend had very graciously allowed us to stay in one of his vacation cottages, and we were very lucky we had taken him up on the offer. When we reached the top of Belmont Hill, we looked out at the devastation below, and it took our collective breath away. The epicenter of our ActionQuest program since 1987 was virtually destroyed along with most of the homes and infrastructure of the BVI. Thoughts of a sunken Ocean Star in Road Harbour hung over my head, like a teetering spar about to break free from the rigging above. The condition of the vessel remained a mystery as communication on and off the island was practically nonexistent. The crew spent the next three days clearing roads and evacuating persons at risk of medical complications from their homes.
Luck played a huge factor in the livelihoods of those affected by the storm. Some had lost everything while others sat unblemished in a sea of debris. We counted ourselves in the fortunate column as we had a home with a roof, food, water, a satellite phone, and our health. Hiking and living off the grid represents half of our job description at Seamester, but now the entire population of Tortola lived the same lifestyle without the necessary equipment. The Sarasota office gave us constant updates on the weather and kept our spirits up with news of British Royal Commandos being deployed to aid in the recovery effort. As if to complicate matters further, Irma found herself on course to collide with our headquarters in Sarasota and the staff at the office had to evacuate their families. During that time, word reached us that Road Town still had internet access and photos of our vessel had been making their way onto the internet. We were devastated to hear that the rig had fallen, but the condition of the hull was unclear and left room for optimism. We held out hope that she was dry.
After the threat of Jose had passed, we made a concerted effort to get back to Ocean Star. We climbed aboard her for the first time nearly four full days after the storm had passed. Gazing down upon a bewildering sight, we saw thick steel poles bent in half like tooth picks, 50′ catamarans mounted atop one another, and the waters of the harbor red with spilled oil and diesel. Happily the only hole in Ocean Star’s hull was from where she had struck the dock high on her starboard quarter. The inside was mostly dry and most major pieces of equipment had survived. The starboard side cap rail looked as if it had been attacked by the port hull of our neighboring catamaran, which was now unfortunately somewhere under the harbor. Ocean Star was the only vessel to remain floating on bravo dock, and one of a handful that survived in Village Cay Marina. Getting the vessel out of Road Harbour as quickly as possible was the next highest priority because the docks were being looted at night. We began by cutting off the rigging we couldn’t save and getting the sunken section of the foremast out from the intended path of egress. After a monumental effort that took a hefty amount of ingenuity and the use of a trusty 4×4 we affectionately named Squeeky, Ocean Star broke free of her slip and plied the waters of the Sir Francis Drake Channel once again. We limped over to a friendly dock on Frenchman’s Cay and began to refocus our efforts on the community now that we had our home back. Several days would pass before a surveyor could find his way into the country and assess the vessel’s damage.
We put that time to good use helping rebuild roofs, building a temporary dock to allow relief ships to land, offloading relief aid from ferries that landed on Frenchman’s Cay, coordinating with emergency services and military personnel to evacuate people and distribute aid, and so many other tasks. We met incredible people along the way and forged new bonds and relationships with neighbors and friends. Inspired by the will of the people of the BVI to rebuild, we took pride in accomplishing the toughest of tasks.
Maria began to threaten on the 19th of September after almost two weeks of steady progress. The remaining sections of the masts were cut off in the hope that Ocean Star would be a bit more sea worthy. With the slips in Road Town no longer an option we were forced to shackle her to our hurricane mooring, leaving her for a second time to ride out the storm on her own. We awoke the following morning to find her unmolested, and brought her back to Soper’s Hole later that day. The arrival of the surveyor signaled the beginning of the end of our time in the BVI. Arriving with tales of how he had managed to get down to the battered Antilles, and of the wrecks and damage he had seen so far, he was still stunned by the devastation in the BVI.
We spent our last weeks in the BVI working with the Royal Marine Commandos and Convoy of Hope to set up generators, mobile kitchens, and a distribution center. Convoy of Hope had promised and delivered hot meals to every child in the BVI school system and the Royal Marines worked tirelessly to help Jost Van Dyke restore power. We wrapped up Ocean Star and made for Antigua. The plan now in motion, we were about to undertake an ambitious refit to have the vessel ready for program by February 6th 2018. It was October 3rd when we left for Antigua. The next two months were spent at the Antigua Slipway up on the rails doing the welding work on the hull and repairing damage to the crumpled rudder. The remaining mast stumps were removed and the hull and deck given a fresh coat of paint. In Sarasota, the masts were being fabricated so that Ocean Star could be stepped shortly after arrival in the US. By the middle of December we were bound for the BVI to drop off some gear, check in with friends, and to pick up the pieces from our summer program ActionQuest. We had done some of the clean up before leaving the BVI, but in a busy mid-December week we managed to get the remaining engines, hulls and other salvageable equipment packaged up and shipped out to Sarasota.
Ocean Star set out from the BVI on a 1300 mile journey to St. Petersburg, Florida. Still, without a rig, she had to rely on her trusty 210hp Caterpillar 3208 for seven days. A calm passage aided by wind and current allowed Ocean Star to make the journey faster than had been expected. She pulled into the docks at the Florida Institute of Oceanography just in time for the crew to arrive on the eve of Christmas Eve. The University of South Florida and FIO were very gracious and allowed Ocean Star to stay at the bay campus for the majority of the refit. There was a brief pause over the holiday week that allowed everyone to catch their collective breath before the storm of rigging & refit activity. The gentlemen at Teakdecking Systems braved record cold temperatures and masterfully repaired the sections of damaged cap rail. Temperatures in Florida had plunged to just a hair above freezing causing Ocean Star to use her HVAC units as heaters for the very first time in her life. Ring Power came out to the vessel and began a top end overhaul of her CAT 3208. They did a great job and finished just in time for a short motor over to Port Manatee where her new masts were about to be stepped. The morning of the mast stepping, ice began forming on the deck as the temperatures had plunged to a record cold well below freezing. The team pressed onward undeterred but remained a bit confused by how Florida could be so cold. A massive crane lowered the newly fabricated steel masts easily into place and Ocean Star made her way back to the Florida Institute of Oceanography that very same evening. The last few days in St. Pete were spent putting the final touches on the vessel and making her ready for her first group of students since Irma.
During the return passage to the BVI, we saw thirty to forty knot head winds and rough seas. Delayed for weather in the Florida Keys, we saw some of the damage Irma had caused to the Conch Republic. Ocean Star made it north to Miami by traveling up the Intracoastal Waterway of the US, and broke out into the Atlantic through the Bahamas. Smoother seas accompanied us across the Atlantic as we headed east to make the angle. We dove south only after reaching a comfortable longitude, and cruised on into the BVI with the wind on the beam. Being back in the BVI after only a few months was difficult. Progress had slowed, but we were happy to find many of our friends and neighbors getting back to a more normal life; there is still much to do, but every day it gets a little better. We made our way to Antigua and arrived two days before the start of program. As we sat in Nelson’s dockyard stern to the dock, we could hardly imagine how far we had come. There had never been any time to reflect or consider all of the events and small stories that led us to this moment. With so much going on and with it all happening so quickly, it was difficult to stop and think about the extraordinary people that helped us along the way, about the kindness and generosity of the friends we had made, and about the incredible achievement we had all accomplished together.
To all of those people, I would like to offer my sincerest thank you. Thank you for supporting us when we needed it most, for all of the hard work you put in, and for making this semester a reality for our students. The students on board could not be more grateful for the experience that has been provided through your efforts. We would not be where we are now without you.
Our students come to Sea|mester from places all over the globe, and from very different walks of life, but by the end of the trip we end as a family. We always remind our students that throughout this 80 or 90 day voyage together, we are one crew and will succeed and fail together. Our struggles bond us together as much as our triumphs. Learning about leadership, seamanship, marine biology, and oceanography is only a small part of what we aim to accomplish. The personal growth, self-reflection, and sense of belonging many students experience while on board Ocean Star are what make the biggest impact years later. Our crews may move on, but Ocean Star continues her work molding the next group of young exuberant people into a new crew; a new family. These crews join the larger family of past shipmates that once called Ocean Star home and they all share a common bond of love for her. Our family grew even larger these past few months and for that we are humbly grateful. For our many alumni, family, and friends, we hope to make you all proud this Antigua Classics Week.
Wish us luck and scratch a stay if you have one handy!